Ride Along is the kind of film that calls for an official “poker game movie” label. Not a disaster, mind you. But not really worth seeing in theaters, either. The best viewing conditions are at a poker game, where you can ignore the boring bits, return your attention for the good stuff, and where the film’s general air of giddy (and often unintentional) silliness jives with the proceedings.
James Payton (Ice Cube) is an Atlanta cop, and a loner in his department: he’s slow to trust, fiercely loyal and protective of the chosen few he does take under his wing. And in case you need reminding, the dialogue spells this out explicitly and repeatedly: Lone wolf. Slow to trust. Fiercely protective. Got it? Good. He has two partners, Santiago (John Leguizamo) and Miggs (Bryan Callen). But they tag along more because it’s their job, and why the fuck not, rather than any real sense of fraternal affection.
James is hot on the trail of the reclusive Omar, an Atlanta crime kingpin who only does his business through surrogates. James has sunk two years into the investigation, and Lt. Brooks (Bruce McGill) – a character who strips the archetype of the naysaying and long-suffering superior down to its most boring and thankless essentials – is ready to pull the plug on things.
The one person who’s made it into James’ circle of trust is his sister, Angela (Tika Sumpter). She’s dating Ben Barber (Kevin Hart), who’s angling to become James’ brother-in-law, and who is decidedly not welcome within the circle of trust. But Ben’s just been accepted into police academy training, which gives James the idea of taking him on a ride along for a day to test his mettle – under the assumption he will, of course, fail, break up with Angela, and James will finally be rid of him.
Ride Along’s somewhat unusual characterization of Ben is probably its strongest aspect. He’s a man who enjoys the performance of being trapped in perpetual adolescence without actually being stuck there. He obsessively plays his first-person shooter video games, is sexually juvenile, and responds to stress with massively over the top emotivism. At the same time, he holds down a steady job as a high school security guard, demonstrates a genuine and effective (if unorthodox) interest in the students’ well-being, is earnest in his desire to marry, and of course he’s applied successfully to the police academy.
So it’s really no surprise that Angela’s willing to stick with Ben despite his foibles, nor is it any mystery that James will eventually be brought around. That leaves the audience looking forward to the “how” of it.
Unfortunately, for the first half of Ride Along, the “how” is an utter mess. James’ test run of Ben results in a series of episodes that are both unfunny and so over-the-top they lose all connection to the realities – however stylized for comedy – that a cop might face during the daily routine. The effect is bad sketch comedy, with no discernible connection to the actual character conflicts or needs at hand. The story threads get so completely lost that by the time Ben figures out James is conning him – bringing in friends to enact staged disturbances to give Ben a hard time – the revelation lands with zero impact.
After that, though, things do improve. James and Ben wind up accidentally caught in a legitimately dangerous confrontation in a strip club. But Ben, having just discovered James’ con, is convinced it’s just another setup, which injects some devil-may-care comedy back into the proceedings. That produces a lead on Omar, kicking the plot into gear and handing over some genuinely enjoyable comedic set pieces to Hart. He spends the third act in a morphine-induced state of invincibility. (“Don’t worry baby, I didn’t feel a thing!” he shouts, right after being hurled bodily into a television set.) And he gets a fifteen minute riff where he pretends to be Omar, since, of course, not even the kingpin’s own men know his face.
Ice Cube is largely overshadowed by comparison. But he does get the movie’s funniest moment, when a reaction to one of Ben’s unexpected successes allows James to break the fourth wall in truly spectacular fashion. Laurence Fishburne also shows up, clearly enjoying the chance to ham it up as a villain.
And that’s more or less the sum of it. As I said at the beginning, your mileage may vary considerably depending on what you’re looking for from a movie. But if you’re willing to ignore a casual and amoral attitude towards police brutality – in The Heat, Melissa McCarthy merely threatened an unarmed suspect with a gun, while in Ride Along Kevin Hart and Ice Cube actually use it and congratulate themselves afterwards – you won’t be entirely bereft of enjoyment.